The Artificial Asian Female: Technologized/Racialized/Gendered Other

Click above image & click through slides to view full dossier of examples


The world of science fiction is in many ways limitless. The genre itself suggests futurity, innovation, and an imagining of a world beyond the one in which we live. Yet, speculative fiction seems to rely on the continuous repetition of several tropes, especially when it comes to envisioning racialized and gendered bodies in the future. This is particularly true of speculative fiction productions created and released from the late 1990s to the 2010s. This period of time, as I illustrate through my dossier, churns out many iterations of the artificial female body, whether in a cyborg/humanoid form or as disembodied voices/technologies. Most interestingly, many of these artificial female bodies are racialized as Asians. From sci-fi thriller Ex Machina’s Kyoko to Cloud Atlas’ Sonmi-451, the artificial Asian female body is represented as an object of desire, a docile servant, a clone, a hypermodern geisha, and so on. She/it also tends to fulfill the following roles: 1) domestic helper 2) sex slave/prostitute 3) villainous seductress/insurgent in rebellion.

My project attempts to examine the archetype of the artificial Asian female body and how this body is gendered and racialized, primarily in sci-fi/dystopian films and television shows. Additionally, I draw a connection between imagined artificial female bodies in speculative fiction and gendered technologies (sex dolls, digital home assistants) in real life. I also trace the ways in which the artificial Asian female body is a continuation of the hypersexual “fembot.” Using the frameworks of Orientalism/techno-Orientalism alongside feminist film theory, I analyze the ways in which the artificial Asian female body makes visible masculine mastery and control over technology and the female body, as well as the process of constituting a fetishized and eroticized “Other.”  The artificial Asian female body embodies both the Asian American history of exclusion/alienation and contemporary anxieties about the foreign, robot-like Asian body in the current age of global capitalism. Finally, I try to uncover what it would mean for Asian/Asian American artists/writers/filmmakers to reckon with these representations of the Asian body as robot body in projects of cultural production.

Link to Paper:  Final paper

Westworld Season 2 (2018), Sakura


Ex Machina (2015), Kyoko


Anomalis (2015), Vintage Japanese sex doll


Cloud Atlas (2012), Sonmi-451


Battlestar Galactica’s Cylon Number 8


Anne Hu’s Cake (2017): A possible method of responding to the hypersexualized artificial Asian female


Annotated Bibliography:

Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Manifestly Haraway, University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Haraway’s text looks toward a feminist posthumanism in its discussion of science, technology, and feminism in the twentieth century. Haraway rejects the rigidity of binaries and instead proposes a hybridized, ambiguous model of the cyborg as a means of restructuring identity. This text will be foundational to my critique of modern-day gendered technologies and my analyses of how gender and sexuality relate to the archetype of the artificial Asian female.

Morley, David, and Kevin Robins. Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries. London: Routledge, 1995.

Morley and Robins’ book specifically addresses the way in which the formation and transmission of media shape cultural identities in the contemporary age of rapid globalization. The chapter “Techno-Orientalism: Japan Panic” explicates the tensions and anxieties that the West harbors in relation to the Far East and treats Orientalism as a conceptual framework in the context of countries moving rapidly toward modernity.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, Volume 16, Issue 3, 1 October 1975, Pages 6–18

Mulvey’s text is useful in supporting/nuancing my interpretation of the artificial female body and the racialized artificial female body. Mulvey’s text serves as a theoretical lens through which to examine the embodiment of masculine desire and pleasure through the construction of the artificial female body. I use Mulvey’s framework of the male gaze in conjunction with the emergence of the “white gaze” to which the artificial Asian body is also subjected to.

Roh, David S., Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu. Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia In Speculative Fiction, History, and Media.

This text lays out the different ways in which Asia and Asians are depicted as hypermodern and hypertechnological in various forms of media, with special emphasis on speculative fictions. I will mostly refer to the chapter, “Technologizing Orientalism” in order to define techno-orientalism and form the theoretical groundwork on which to build my analysis of the artificial Asian female body.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Said’s Orientalism is fundamental to my project as the text explicates the concept of orientalism, underscoring the perceived dichotomy between the inferior (and homogenous) East and the superior West. Said’s work is canonical to many scholars studying imperialism, racism, and power. This text serves as the theoretical basis of my analysis of the artificial Asian female as exoticized and fetishized “other.” It is also the text that the theory of techno-orientalism draws upon.

Stam, Robert ., and Spence, Louise. “Colonialism, Racism and Representation,” Screen, Volume 24, Issue 2, 1 March 1983, Pages 2–20

Stam and Spence examines “filmic colonialism and racism” as a means of deconstructing racist visual representations. This text uses a textual and intertextual approach to analyze Western cinema’s treatment of “otherness.” I rely mostly on the section, “Imperialism and the Cinema” to contextualize the relationship between the archetype of the artificial Asian female body and the apparatus of power.

The Music Video: Audience, Labor, Performance

I wanted to think more about the discussion we had after our last screening as a class as well as the specific selection of music videos we watched. In particular, I keep returning to our brief conversation about Beyoncé’s brand of feminism comparison to Janelle Monae’s brand of feminism, especially as they were invoked in their respective visual albums/music videos. We talked a bit about the different existing debates and criticisms regarding Beyoncé’s form of feminism in contrast to Janelle Monae’s; in their music videos, the differences can be found in their style of music, visual aesthetic, wardrobe choices, lyrics, themes, artistic direction, and so on. I find myself thinking of Alexandra Juhasz’s visit, during which we watched one of her earliest films that she made as a student. In reference to the film, which presented various facts and myths about AIDS, Juhasz said that the film wasn’t for everyone, and that it was okay that it wasn’t for everyone. The idea that certain forms of cultural production simply aren’t intended for everyone raises questions concerning audience and respectability politics that seem particularly relevant and even contradictory when applied to explicitly mainstream content like music videos.

Both Beyoncé and Janelle Monae can be categorized as mainstream artists (perhaps Beyoncé more so), and so it’s interesting to think about how their music is supposed to appeal to a wide audience in order to maintain a fan following and generate revenue, yet sometimes still presents more niche aesthetics that are not necessarily palatable to everyone. Take for example Beyoncé’s politically charged imagery of herself lying on top of a police car in New Orleans (“Formation” music video) or her use of Warsan Shire’s poetry elsewhere in Lemonade. Similarly, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer incorporates aspects of Afrofuturism, queerness, and alternative forms of kinship. Both artists also unapologetically address their identities as black women in their visual albums, emphasizing a position that not every viewer can relate to. But if some things aren’t and don’t have to be for everyone, then an interesting problem that arises is whether audiences who do not resonate with Monae or Beyoncé’s work should accept their disconnect or rather make an effort to recognize and question their own discomfort in order to figure out why a particular work isn’t “for them.”

I also wanted to bring in Racquel Gates’ Double Negative, specifically the section on labor, work, and performance. Gates points out that the issue of labor, both performative and invisibilized by production, is entangled in the world of reality television. Gates points to two types of labor common amongst women who appear on “trashy” reality T.V. shows like the Real Housewives or Love & Hip Hop franchises: “The women’s labor takes two forms: the women as employees of the production company, and the shows as platforms for business opportunities (Gates, 152).” Gates goes on to underscore how women on reality T.V. shows are still able to assert a certain degree of agency and “break the fourth wall” in terms of acknowledging the show as a performance/orchestrated production, despite the efforts of producers and editing that attempt to portray the events of the show as entirely “real.” I thought this was applicable to some of the music videos we watched, most notably Frank Ocean’s “Nikes” and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. In the music video for “Nikes,” Ocean acknowledges his conflicts with his record labels. Similarly, Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself” alludes to rumors about her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity. For both artists, the music video is a medium through which they comment on aspects of their personal lives, blending the personal with the professional (what they create as working musicians). Like reality T.V. stars, in their respective videos, Beyoncé and Ocean execute a performance that is choreographed, edited, and ultimately produced, but it is also their real lives that undergirds their onscreen labor.


Visionary Feminism, Popular Education & Production of Knowledge

Since reading and discussing bell hooks’ “Visionary Feminism” chapter from Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, I have been thinking about the production and democratization of knowledge. In her text, hooks places particular emphasis on feminist education and literacy. Though upon cursory glance, it may seem that hooks advocates for a sort of feminist school, feminist college, or feminist educational program, but I also found hooks’ writing especially striking in her ideology, which recognizes the intimate connection between knowledge and revolutionary power. hooks writes: “a fundamental goal of visionary feminism was to create strategies to change the lot of all women and enhance their personal power (hooks 111).” She then identifies “mass-based feminist education for critical consciousness (hooks 113)” as a means towards the realization of personal power. I interpret hooks’ visionary feminism as one that recognizes individuals, especially women who are historically marginalized and disenfranchised, as producers of knowledge and therefore, experts of their own lives, experiences, and oppression. hooks’ vision of feminist literacy/feminist education runs counter to the narratives about women that are represented in media produced by dominant society.

To understand ordinary individuals as producers of knowledge is to assert that individuals have authority, agency, and power. For me, when hooks writes that “radical visionary feminism encourages all of us to courageously examine our lives from the standpoint of gender, race, and class so that we can accurately understand our position within the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks 116),” hooks underscores how our complex identities and varied experiences culminate in the formation of unique epistemological value. Understanding our position in relation to oppressive forces of power (imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy) can actually help us to feel less powerless in the face of these domineering structures. Drawing upon our personal experiences and sharing such experiences with others is a methodology of solidarity-building and liberational pedagogy; actively learning from each other is a way to counter those who hold structural power and own the means to mass cultural production (the wealthy, white people, men) and subvert the power dynamic between the roles of teacher and student.

This aspect of hooks’ visionary feminism finds resonance in the films that we’ve watched in class, including but not necessarily limited to Janie’s Janie (1971), Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), United in Anger: A History of Act Up (2012), and Alexandra Juhasz’s We Care. In each of these films, I was struck by the way in which the filmmakers made deliberate choices to center and make visible the experiences of those who are typically ignored. In Janie’s Janie and Born in Flames, it is everyday women who are shown teaching and learning from each other through the sharing of their experiences. In United in Anger and Juhasz’s We Care, the attention is directed to people living with AIDS and their caretakers, family, friends, and activists. I was especially reminded of bell hooks when watching the sequences in We Care that described myths and truths about people living with AIDS. The refusal to focus exclusively on doctors as the authority figures on AIDS was powerful in that We Care, alongside United in Anger, instead identified people whose lives have been touched by AIDS as authority figures in their own lives, experiences, and illness.

Both Born in Flames and United in Anger show disruptions of mainstream newscasts (one in a fictionalized America and one at CBS in the 90s) and these interruptions serve as an explicit middle finger to mainstream media and an affirmation of how those who are pushed to the fringe can in fact understand the fringe space as a productive space of creativity, power, and solidarity. In thinking about hooks’ visionary feminism in relation to these films, one can understand film as a medium through which popular education for feminist literacy and liberation can be realized.

10/8 Reading Journal: Gender and Spaces

From this week’s readings, I am especially interested in Wojcik’s “We Like Our Apartment: The Playboy Indoors” and how it can be placed in conversation with Ouellette’s “Inventing the Cosmo Girl” and Spigel’s “Television and the Family Circle” (from last week). What I found most interesting about Wojcik’s text is the idea that identity can be bound to physical space/location. More specifically, Wojcik points out that in the case of the bachelor pad, the bachelor pad produces the bachelor as playboy while the figure of the playboy in turn produces the space of the bachelor pad. Wojcik’s text maps a geography of masculinity onto the space of the “bachelor pad” apartment. The multi-textured floorings and walls, earth tones, brown wood, shag rugs, bars, and furniture choices form an identifiable aesthetic that both confirms to the bachelor-as-playboy and communicates to others his seduction, heterosexuality, and masculinity.

The bachelor pad serves as a “space or stage for display: the smooth performance of bachelorhood enacted via activities such as hosting and decorating and via external codes of design and costume (Wojcik 109).” Bachelorhood necessitates constant performance that is materialized through the interior landscape of the bachelor pad. Wojcik underscores that the dependent relationship between the bachelor identity and the physical space of the bachelor pad suggests that the masculinity and heterosexuality of the bachelor identity must be constantly reinforced and therefore neither essential nor stable. Following this frame of logic, I understand the formation of the bachelor-as-playboy identity through the curating of the bachelor pad as an extension of Judith Butler’s idea of gender “performativity.” Butler understands the constitution of one’s gender as a process of continual performance of artificial social conventions; in short, gender is a social construction and the bachelor pad is a material manifestation of heterosexuality and masculinity that is not necessarily intrinsic to the bachelor-as-playboy.

As a provisional thought, I am interested in looking at Wojcik’s figure of the bachelor in contrast to Ouellette’s analysis of the figure of the Cosmo Girl. While the bachelor/playboy projects himself into a physical space that he curates, the Cosmo Girl is contained within herself through means of self-improvement. Though women in generally are more closely associated with the domestic space, the Cosmo Girl’s identity as a single, working-class woman means that she is not afforded the same domination or control over a physical space onto which to project her desires and sexuality.

I also wanted to touch on the way in which Playboy magazine locates masculinity and heterosexuality in the urban, indoor space of the bachelor pad apartment. Rather than emphasizing the mastery of the outdoors or the taming of the wilderness/unknown (through activities such as camping, backpacking, “roughing it”), the bachelor-as-playboy’s masculinity is sourced from his power and control over the domestic space of the home. The way the furniture is arranged dictates where different activities/types of socialization will occur while the decorations of the bachelor pad assert into the space the bachelor’s masculine subjectivity and influence. One of the most important features of the bachelor pad seems to be the various technologies such as the hi-f- speaker sets, large televisions, and remote controls that can dim lights, control the TV, close drapes, turn off the phone, etc. These forms of domination and control are not dissimilar from the mastery of the outdoors, only that they are now exercised through the usage of technology instead. This specific type of “technologized domination and control” might then be connected to the modern-day technologies of voice command and digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Google Home’s default female voices. I also found it interesting how in contrast to the role of technology and the bachelor-as-playboy, in the “Television and the Family Circle” Spigel suggests that the presence of the television set in American homes threatened the masculinity and patriarchal authority of the father. Technology reveals a contradiction; it at once disrupts traditional family ideals through the emasculation of the father figure while also extending the masculine power and control of the single bachelor.